Fabled Fountain City

Where the ducks are friendly, the burgers are huge, and the community spirit is above average

"I remember topping the hill as you come down Broadway, going down into the little valley that is Fountain City," relates one 24-year resident. "The leaves on the willows were just emerging, and there was a big, blue sky and fluffy, white clouds. The sun was sparkling off the steeples and cupolas of the churches." She knew, she says, that this was a place with a healthy and distinct sense of itself. This New Yorker decided then and there to raise her two children here.

In 24 years, City Councilwoman Carlene Malone has not regretted it. She says moving to Fountain City was the best decision she's ever made, with the possible exception of marrying her husband.

The spiritual and perhaps geological center of this moist valley is a duck pond shaped like a valentine heart. It's the residence of perhaps 20 ducks, some more bold than others, needing little in the way of eye contact to walk right up and introduce themselves. They have no fear. You are human and therefore an excellent source of nutrition.

Perhaps intimidated by the ducks, some who visit the duck pond don't get out of their cars. They sit in cars alongside the park, reading paperbacks, speaking on cell phones. Almost every day, at least one person who shows up here pops the hood to do some auto maintenance.

Some Farragut swimming pools are as big as this pond, but it's officially "Fountain City Lake." As if to prove it's a real lake, folks drop fishing lines in it. Here on a Thursday afternoon are five fishermen, including a dad and his son with a stick pole and a couple of old men who aren't paying much attention, speculating on why the afternoon sunlight hitting the spray of water from the fountain sometimes makes it appear to fly backwards. The most serious fisherman today is a sunburned, fortyish man who looks like Robert Shaw in Jaws. He's got two lines in the water.

"There's all kinds of fish here," he says with professional authority. "Largemouth, smallmouth, bluegill, crappie, cats. Last year I caught a 31-pound cat." Today he's got two bass on the line, one maybe 15 inches long.

"I'll let 'em go, let somebody else catch 'em," he says. "I don't like the taste of freshwater fish." For now, he's keeping them imprisoned on a leash for show.

A grandmother who's been showing a brood of baby ducks to her toddler strolls over to induce the man to pull the two unfortunates out of the water for one more look. Boys ride around the pond on bikes. Up on the hill, a young man in a Vols jersey works on the engine of a Mercury sedan, listening to a rap song loudly repeating the one word we've decided not to print in this magazine.

In the middle of the pond is a spouting fountain that symbolizes the community's name. Over 34 years after annexation, this is Fountain City--but not necessarily Knoxville. Less than five miles out Broadway, the duck pond is closer to downtown Knoxville than Knoxville's Main Post Office is, closer than either of Knoxville's big malls--but Fountain City still seems like a different, distant place.

A dark stone memorial, the only thing legible at the duck pond, is "dedicated in memory and honor of all Fountain City veterans." That doesn't include Knoxville veterans or Knox County veterans. Just Fountain City ones.

It's not a remnant of pre-annexation days. It was dedicated only last year.

Growing Apart

Fountain City wasn't separated at birth.

John Adair is recalled as Fountain City's patriarch, remembered in distinctly Fountain City place names like Adair Drive, Adair Park, Adair Manor, etc. The Irish adventurer settled here around 1788. But Adair himself seems for all the world like a Knoxvillian. He was a county official at the Knoxville courthouse, a trustee for Blount College on Gay, an elder at the Presbyterian Church on State. For a guy who'd crossed the ocean to get here, four or five miles was no big deal. (In 1796 Adair became the only foreign-born member of the Constitutional Convention which formed Tennessee.)

But for many who followed Adair here, his old home was just far enough.

A spot near Adair's home became known as the Fountain Head, where an underground stream emerged from some boulders and formed First Creek that flowed south and turned the mills that powered Knoxville's first industry. In the 1800s, the Fountainhead became known as a place to get away from the smoke and noise of industrializing Knoxville, especially for church retreats, ecumenical camp meetings, candle-lit vespers, not necessarily solemn affairs. In Knoxville, the Fountainhead developed a reputation as a place for falling in love.

Times changed, and in 1885 a group of capitalists built the extravagantly secular Fountain Head Hotel, a castle of three full stories, a dormered fourth floor and a tower, with running water fresh from the creek. In High Victorian Knoxville, the Fountain Head became known for its fine meals, breezy verandahs, a new pastime called golf, and Professor Guilliano's band, which played every evening at dusk. All that hot, sticky, coal-dusty Knoxvillians needed was a way to get there faster. In 1890, investors built a "dummy line," a train from one end of Broadway to the other, a silver dime one way, half an hour at a leisurely pace. They got a post office here about the same time, and called it Fountain City just because Tennessee already had a Fountainhead P.O. (in Sumner County).

As if they needed to make it even more appealing, they built that pond, the Fountain City Lake, in 1891.

It was hard to stay away from the place. A single week in 1893 witnessed a balloon ascension, fireworks, parachutes, and a speech by Fiddlin' Bob Taylor, the most popular politician, motivational speaker, and standup comic in the South.

An early promoter declared that Fountain City "will be a town where the saloon and whiskey store will never be seen. We intend to make it a great educational center, where the morals are as pure as the bracing atmosphere and life-giving water." As a whole, Fountain City hasn't strayed very far from those morals.

But in the early 20th century, the hotel eventually became a high-class sanitarium before it was destroyed by fire--as it seems all hotels were in those days--and the area around it rapidly became residential.

Future King of Country Music Roy Acuff grew up here, became a baseball star at Central High and, according to stories, learned to play the fiddle from an eccentric auto mechanic who ran a gas station on the north side of the park in the 1920s. An early country string band called Ridgel's Fountain Citians made some rare recordings in Knoxville in 1929. Recently, a disk jockey on North Carolina's WNCW played one of the band's cuts and remarked on the peculiarity of their name, apparently unaware of its origin.

The place boomed in the middle of the 20th Century, almost purely as a residential area, quadrupling in population between 1930 and 1960, when there was talk of making Fountain City one of several new parts of Knoxville.

The addition of the word "city" back in 1890 to please the post office may have a lot to answer for. Unlike some other suburbs, including Old North Knoxville, which was once a city with a mayor of its own, Fountain City never incorporated. (Locals once claimed it was the largest unincorporated community east of the Mississippi, a claim mighty hard to disprove.) They did build their own water supply, but Fountain City never supported much industry or independent business of its own; that was a big part of its appeal. Politically, Fountain City was never really a town, never mind a city. Economically, it was always wholly dependent on Knoxville. Most of those who lived in Fountain City in the early '60s got their paychecks from Knoxville jobs.

But when Knoxville annexed several suburbs in 1962--some, like West Hills, farther from Knoxville's nucleus than Fountain City was--Fountain City alone mourned. They held a mock funeral parade for their community, the Central High band providing the dirges. Some declared they'd never call themselves Knoxvillians. Even 34 years later, some residents insist on writing Fountain City, not Knoxville, as their return address. In fact, the word Knoxville is still rare up here. If not for the fire department, you might not see that word here at all. You'd think to these folks, Knoxville was just that high school down south that Central used to beat once a year.

That may seem a little odd, considering how many prominent Knoxville politicians and city officials live up here: Malone, Mary Lou Horner, Jack Sharp, and County Executive Tommy Schumpert are just a few of the politically powerful municipal leaders who call Fountain City home. Fountain City apparently has more Knoxville politicos per capita than any other part of town--another surprise, considering that Fountain Citians say they feel neglected by the city in terms of funding projects.

Downtown

At the spot where the old Knoxville train used to let out, there's still a pocket urban area, businesses two stories tall, close together with sidewalks. A newcomer might easily assume that this was, maybe still is, a town of its own. Lots of incorporated towns look like less. Old Hotel Street, at Broadway, still has the look of a tasteful resort, some old town in Colorado maybe, with small shops in two-story storefronts, close together, with colorful names: Yesterday's Fancy; Fountain City Creamery; The Bird and Fish Depot; The Trolley Shop.

Judged by the number of times the phrase "Fountain City" appears in names of businesses, this is the proudest community in Knoxville. Fountain City and Fountain Head appear in the names of no fewer than 30 businesses. Fountain City's only rival in the yellow pages is West Knoxville, which is several times larger.

Over and over, you hear residents and visitors alike compare it to Mayberry. An employee at Litton's prefers to compare it to another TV show. "Fountain City is the 'Northern Exposure' of Knoxville," he says.

Litton's has become a major landmark in recent years. You can see the duck pond from its windows on Essary Road. Litton's burgers are famous, picked as Knoxville's best in more than one poll. But what makes Litton's remarkable in Knoxville is the fact that it uses its own community's culture and makes of it something genuine, original and very successful.

Here they have a sandwich called the Fountain City Club, and a Fountain City Onion Soup (the basic French Onion, but hold the cheese). There are well-stained hardwood floors, playfully surreal color chalk art behind the counter, framed raves on the walls, a huge blown-up portrait of the Central High Class of '42--and taped over the grill where you can see the chefs working hard, a wine list.

They also serve liquor and beer. If famously temperate Fountain City holds it against them, Litton's is not suffering for it. There's a rotary chalkboard out front with spaces for 48 waiting parties. It's not unusual, on a Friday night, for number 48 to be duly filled in. The place is packed at lunchtime and typically feeds all afternoon, even on weekdays.

Maybe it's just the historical accident of the word "City" that makes Fountain Citians feel independent. Or maybe it's the steep hill that makes a separate valley of the Fountain City area, the incline called Sharp's Ridge.

Sharp's Ridge is the highest mountain in Knoxville. You can get up there surprisingly quickly and drive the Memorial Park road, less than two miles long. It's the origin of most of East Tennessee's radio and TV signals, as well as a notorious lovers' lane. From here, even Knoxville looks like a tiny hamlet at the foot of the Smokies. From the top of the ridge, Knoxville's another place, almost unrecognizable until you notice the Sunsphere, a shiny dandelion far off in that valley to the south. Here, better than you can anywhere else in town, you can see just how far three miles is.

"I think the air is different" when you pass through Sharp's Gap, says insurance agent Richard Tumblin, who grew up here. (He recalls the not-so-distant days when it was so coal-smoke smoggy in Knoxville that blowing your nose would blacken your handkerchief.) Tumblin, president of the Fountain City Business and Professional Association, has long observed that Fountain City's more community-spirited than other parts of town.

Sharp's Ridge on the South and Black Oak Ridge on the north seal in Fountain City's distinctive charms and distinctive adversities. Though drainage improvements have decreased the frequency and severity of floods, Fountain City has a greater problem with flooding and related problems like sinkholes and swampy spots than most of the city does. A flood two years ago floated boats in Harrill Hills. A year ago this month, the community was hit with a destructive tornado which destroyed or damaged hundreds of houses and felled the trees for which Cedar Lane was named. It's the flip side of isolation--locals grumble that one of Knoxville's most destructive natural disasters in recent years got relatively little media attention.

Fountain City Uber Alles

Isolation works both ways. At the Fountain Head Barber and Style Shop, a Boomer-aged stylist is working on an older woman's weekly hairdo. The woman in the chair says she's been living in Fountain City for 44 years.

"There are more rednecks in Halls," the old woman reports matter-of-factly, as if it's the sort of thing we could verify via census records. "We are very conservative," she adds. "We have high priorities: good home, good community, good churches."

Out of the blue, she adds, "We don't have any black people here--but it's not racial. When a black person comes to the Baptist church, it doesn't upset me. But I wouldn't invite one to dinner."

Even though she's blurting out the usually unspoken rules by which most white Americans live their lives, it sounds inflammatory. The stylist is quick to distance herself from the remark. "And that's not racial?" she says.

"They've got their place and I have mine," the older woman counters. "That's not racial. It's racial to mistreat them."

Her assertion of racial homogeneity, for the record, is a small exaggeration. Across the street at Litton's as we speak are a few blacks both at work behind the cash register and seated, being served. At the 1990 census, more than 500 blacks lived in the Fountain City area, a number apparently on the rise.

The older woman and the younger one agree on one thing: Fountain City folks try to keep up with their neighbors, imitating each other's home improvements. They see a contrast even with other North Knoxvillians who live a couple miles south of Fountain City. As in many residential communities, the distinctions revolve around the high schools.

The hairdresser says, "Central kids dress better, have good cars, expect to go to college. Fulton kids are gonna have a trade."

In several demographic categories, Fountain Citians and North Knoxvillians on the town side of Sharp's Ridge are nearly identical. Both are overwhelmingly white. Neither has a sizable population of immigrants, very low even compared to Knoxville as a whole. Their population densities are comparable, just over 2,000 per square mile. Both Fountain Citians and lower North Knoxvillians are a little older than the Knoxville average. Both have a tendency to stay put in the same house for decades.

But some statistics support the stylist's sweeping generalizations. People over 25 who live north of Sharp's Ridge are much more likely to be high-school graduates, much more likely to be college graduates, than people who live south of the ridge. Nearly a quarter of Fountain City's adult residents have college degrees. And, of course, they make much more money.

The stylist, who actually lives south of the ridge, is amused at Fountain Citians' thriftiness. Some reacted when she raised her rates from $8 to $10. Some offer her one-quarter tips with an air of patrician magnanimity.

Carlene Malone calls that conservatism. A gas station attendant of her acquaintance recently got a job in Fountain City after years working in West Knoxville. "You know," he told her, "out west people don't ask what it costs. Here everybody counts their change."

Malone says that Fountain City is "conservative in the sense that there's not a desire for a lot of razzle-dazzle. We want the basic services, peace and quiet, and big churches."

They're conservative in several time-honored respects. Mary Lou Horner says the strength of her birthplace is its sturdy individualism. "We pay our taxes, and say leave us alone. We do things ourselves, take care of the lake, the park. We even built our own ball park."

Even some of the old camp-meeting ethic clings on today. "We don't drink in front of each other here," says Richard Tumblin. "If we're going to do that, we need to sneak." Some younger folks complain that Fountain City lacks nightspots. Of the 69 business listed as either taverns or nightclubs in the Knoxville phone book, only two are in Fountain City. The North holds its own in liquor stores per capita; but as far as public drinking goes, this may be the driest region inside the city limits.

However, the community gathering-spot role that bars fulfill in many communities is served ably by soberer establishments. Litton's is one, of course, as is the duck pond itself, and the ball park. A McDonald's parking lot becomes an informal hotrod show on weekends. Churches, of course, are a big part of Fountain City's sense of community, as is the Lions Club and the community center and park it supports.

This Monday may be Fountain City's finest hour: Honor Fountain City Day. Thousands attend each year on Memorial Day to witness politicians' speeches, music from the Central High bands, the recognition of a Mr. and Mrs. Fountain City, an elderly veteran reading unusual rhymes, and sundry (but sober) revelry.

The juggernaut behind that and other events like the yuletide Lighting of the Tree is an entity called Fountain City Town Hall, an unusually well-organized community organization that meets once a month, presents seminars on everything from crime prevention to zoning, offers citizens the opportunity to vent grievances, plans swell parties, and almost makes up for the fact that Fountain City never had a mayor and city council. Mary Lou Horner started Town Hall 24 years ago, and implies that not everything they do sits well with her. "When we started Town Hall, it was a very positive organization that worked with the business community," she says. "Without a strong business community, we won't have a strong residential community."

"We've been accused of being anti-development, anti-business," says recent Town Hall chairman Garry Menendez. "But it's not that. We're pro-neighborhood."

Fountain City, R.F.D.

Outside of these planned occasions, one of Carlene Malone's favorite gathering occasions is any afternoon at the Fountain City Creamery, right across Hotel Street from that park. (Like Litton's it's famous for its hamburgers.) She says she sat there eating a burger recently when a couple of Gresham Middle kids came in and ordered malteds. She'd never met them before, but they'd been talking about acquaintances injured in car accidents. She had a few things to add, and soon the two adolescents were sitting at Carlene's table.

The owner asked, "Do you want what's left over?" and handed them each a metal shake-maker with the dregs of their malteds in the bottom. They slurped it up and carried on their conversation with their city councilwoman. As the boys left, the owner turned to Malone and said, "I bet you didn't expect company today."

Lots of folks, including Fountain Citians, call Fountain City "cliquish," but Malone says she had no trouble fitting in here. Neither did Garry Menendez: "That's a reputation we've earned, but it's not true." He moved here from Somewhere Up North a dozen years ago, and soon found himself taking a leadership role at venerable Town Hall. On a recent volunteer project to improve part of the park, Menendez was surprised to learn that none of his fellow volunteer co-workers were native Tennesseans, but were originally from Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania. For some, it takes only a few years in the valley to earn your wings as a bona fide Fountain Citian.

This old-fashioned, Mayberry-style community still has the potential to breed some interesting new, even trendy, attractions. Litton's, of course, is permanently trendy. And Marcus' Pizza started out in the Old City several years ago but moved to Fountain City. From its seemingly unlikely location--a '70s-style Tudor-suburban shopping center called Fountain Place--Marcus' Pizza developed a sudden reputation for lively and often progressive bluegrass, hailed by many as the best venue for indigenous music in the Knoxville area, packed on weekends with UT students and folks who wouldn't otherwise get away from the campus-downtown axis often. The music-publishing folks pulled rank on Marcus early this year and put a legal damper on live music there, but look for an encore soon.

Six decades after homeboy Acuff left, live music still has a hold on the imagination of Fountain City, and not necessarily in the tradition of "Great Speckled Bird." The Fountainhead Conservatory, a boys' choir which sprang from the Fountain City Methodist Church, may be the most renowned choral group in the region and is more comfortable with old-time numbers like "Ave Maria." On their agenda is an audience with the pope (or, more accurately, an audience that includes the pope).

The Sun Also Rises

As neighboring communities like Halls explode with population and development, Fountain City's population has held steady for the last 35 years or so at just over 20,000. City planners don't expect that figure to change much in our lifetime. "We don't appear to be growing," Carlene Malone admits. "But neither is Sequoyah Hills." When a Knoxville politician described Fountain City's population as "stagnant," Carlene Malone snapped, "The word is 'stable.' I'll show you how to spell it."

A local businesswoman is convinced that Fountain City is mostly old folks. Young folks, she says, don't care much for Fountain City. Nowadays, she says, people starting families want bigger houses than there are in Fountain City, like the mammoth manors popping up in new subdivisions in nearby Halls or farther out west.

There are indeed a lot of old folks in Fountain City, and there aren't a lot of new houses going up. But populations don't stay old forever. A changing of the guard has been under way for a decade or so. A glance at the Fountain City playground confirms what statistics show: Knoxville's population of children under five is growing fastest here just north of Fountain City, in what the MPC calls the North Sector.

Watching the kids swinging in the park, you wonder what words they learn to say first. Knoxville, Tennessee, America--or Fountain City.

© 1996 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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